LAST AFTER EPIPHANY — 10 February 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
If you’re not already aware, and I’m sure most of you are, a reminder that for the last generation or so the Church has concluded the season following the Epiphany on the Sunday before Lent begins by reading in the Gospel the account of what we call the Transfiguration of Christ. (We rotate through the three synoptic Gospels every three years; this year it’s the version from St. Luke. St. Luke’s account is also used every year on August 6, when we celebrate the Transfiguration as a major Holy Day.) Some of us recall further back than a generation, when we used to lead into Lent by observing three Sundays yclept Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. (Don’t ask.)
In the Epiphany season we have been reflecting on various modes of the Manifestation of Christ – to the gentile Wise Men, at his Baptism, to the wedding guests at Cana – and we conclude with this one to Peter, James, and John, following which Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, a journey that will take him to the Cross. Appropriate as we move toward Lent.
Actually, by strange coincidence, I was here on this Sunday three years ago, when we read this Gospel from Luke, and I preached on this same text, and I started from a point where I am going to start again today, although today I think I will then go in a somewhat different direction. Luke of course got this story from St. Mark, as also does St. Matthew, but Luke adds a line, which I think is not really a new thought but just makes more explicit what was already implicit in Mark’s story, in which Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus; and then Luke adds: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” “Speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Well, yes, that’s a reasonable enough translation, except that it kind of misses the point that I think Luke is trying to make. In the Greek text they are speaking of Jesus’ exodus. His Exodus. And if that word rings a bell, maybe it’s because Luke is banging on it with a clapper! It sure rang a bell for the first Christian communities, Jewish-Christian communities initially, that heard and read it.
“Exodus” is a loaded term. The word itself literally means “the way out,” ex odos, “the going-out,” but it’s not very widely used in classical Greek and despite what the lexicons say, it doesn’t really have a generalized use in the New Testament either. What it does mean in the context of the Greek scriptures is “The Exodus” of the People of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The early story of Israel begins of course with the patriarch Abraham, but the book of Genesis is basically a family saga. The history of the Israelite nation begins in Egypt with their liberation from slavery under the leadership of Moses, with the reception of God’s Law at Sinai, and their entry into the Promised Land across the Jordan. But, as the question goes, “So how did that work out for you?” and the honest answer is, “Not very well.” There was something of a resurgence under King David, a Golden Age which gleamed more brightly in retrospect than in the events themselves. Under David’s son Solomon, who is remembered for his wisdom as a denial of the historical fact that he was actually a fool, the nation of Israel began to fall apart, until finally there was a new enslavement, this time in Babylonia to the east. The “anointed one” (the Messiah) who liberated Israel (more or less) this time was Cyrus, the King of Persia (of all people!). Persian domination was replaced by the empire of Alexander, a Macedonian Greek, which then broke up and left Israel to be dominated in turn by the Ptolemaic Greek subempire in Egypt and then the Seleucid Greek subempire in Syria. The next liberation came under Judah the Hammer, Judas Maccabeus, who led a successful war of independence and gave his people the feast of Hanukkah. But once again, “How did that work out for you?” And a century later, the Romans decided they needed a better buffer against the Parthian Empire to the east, and they took over Israel militarily. Initially the Romans ruled through a puppet king named Herod, known as Herod the Great especially by himself, but later through a variety of other kinglets, tetrarchs, and direct Roman prefects and procurators. The Jews didn’t like this very much, and the Romans didn’t like it that the Jews didn’t like it, and so the Romans finally lost patience and shut the whole nation down.
So that’s the backstory (and a bit of the frontstory) of what’s happening on the mountain of the Transfiguration in the Gospel today. Jesus, in consultation with Moses and Elijah (the two great figures of Israelite history), is preparing to accomplish a new Exodus, a new Passover, at Jerusalem. They appear in glory, what the Hebrew Scriptures call the shekinah, the Presence of the Lord God. For Israel the Presence of the Lord was preeminently in the Temple in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth touch. Yet we are now being shown that the Presence of the Lord is preeminently in Jesus. One of the points Jesus will make after his procession into Jerusalem is to imply not too subtly that the Temple is now no longer the preeminent place of God’s presence, and indeed its days are numbered, as indeed they were. (What Jesus is doing is not “cleansing the Temple” but proclaiming God’s judgment on the Temple.) He himself is God’s Presence, he is Immanu-El, God with us. And at Jerusalem he will indeed accomplish a new Exodus, a whole new liberation of the renewed People of God, far beyond what Moses did, or David, (or even Cyrus of all people!) or Judah the Maccabee.
Because when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he meant something very different from all those past attempts at liberation. He did not mean a kingdom established by political or military power, winning victory by violence, as all these past attempts had been. (And once more: “How did that work out for you?”) That was what many people who heard Jesus hoped he meant – apparently including Judas Iscariot, who when he realized that that wasn’t what Jesus was up to, he betrayed him. Presumably the Jewish religious leaders thought and feared that Jesus intended a political revolution, and certainly that’s why the Roman prefect Pilate had him crucified. But many claiming to be followers of Jesus thought, and even today still think, that the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and enacted had to do not with this world but with some otherworldly realm in the sweet by and by. But very little that Jesus said has anything much to do with the sweet by and by. Heaven is where God reigns, but God is not up in the sky, off in the future somewhere. It was Jesus’ vocation to launch God’s sovereign rule on earth, but to win the victory in this new Exodus not with the power of violence but with the power of justice, of which the flip side is love. And he does this as now God’s presence in the world. His presence in his Body. And his Body is …